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Fighting Continues Over Flashpoint Town in Northern Syria

A Turkish soldier stands near his armored vehicle on a highway near the northern Syrian town of Ain Issa in the Raqqa region, on Nov. 26, 2019, as Turkey-backed forces deploy reinforcements around the town.
A Turkish soldier stands near his armored vehicle on a highway near the northern Syrian town of Ain Issa in the Raqqa region, on Nov. 26, 2019, as Turkey-backed forces deploy reinforcements around the town.

A town in northern Syria is increasingly becoming a battleground between Turkish-backed groups and U.S.-backed forces amid fears of a new large-scale Turkish offensive in the area.

In recent weeks, fighting around the northern town of Ain Issa has intensified with Turkish-backed Syrian militias carrying out attacks against U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

The clashes have forced thousands of civilians in Ain Issa to flee their homes as nearby villages have already been caught in the crossfire.

Ain Issa is largely controlled by the Kurdish-led SDF, a major U.S. partner in the fight against Islamic State (IS) terror group. But Russia, a staunch supporter of the Syrian government, has a significant military presence in the region.

Kurdish military officials say Russia has been pressing them to hand over the town to Syrian government troops.

“When we refused the latest Russian demand to withdraw from Ain Issa, the situation escalated with Turkey and its Syrian proxies waging attacks on our forces on a daily basis,” a senior SDF official told VOA.

The official, who requested anonymity given the sensitivity of the topic, said that “Russia and Turkey seem to in agreement to remove us from Ain Issa and its surrounding areas.”

Existential threat

Turkey views the SDF and the Kurdish YPG — the main element within SDF — as an extension of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an outlawed group designated as a terrorist organization by Ankara and Washington.

In October 2019, Turkey launched a major offensive, codenamed Operation Peace Spring, against SDF fighters in Syria, dislodging them from Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, two towns located north and east of Ain Issa respectively.

“Ain Issa has become a foothold of infiltration, harassment, and terrorist attacks for PKK/YPG,” a source at Turkey’s foreign ministry told VOA.

“Ongoing terrorist attacks in Ras-al Ayn and OPS area are the evident consequence of such hostility,” the source added.

The Turkish ministry blamed the SDF for a car bomb attack on Saturday that killed several civilians in the town of Ras al-Ayn. Kurdish fighters, however, have denied responsibility for the attack.

The source said Turkey is “determined to fight against terrorism regardless of its source and perpetrators,” adding that Ankara expects “all members of the international community to respect and support Turkey’s right to defend its national security and people against such terrorist attacks.”

Aykan Erdemir, a Turkey expert at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), says the Turkish government will likely continue to work with its Syrian proxies to remove the SDF from northern Syria since Ankara sees any form of Syrian Kurdish self-rule as an existential threat.

“The Turkish government hopes that such pressure will force the SDF to acquiesce to greater presence of Russian and Syrian regime forces in the region at the expense of U.S. forces and thereby undermine the prospects of Syrian Kurdish autonomy in the long run,” he told VOA.

The United States currently has some 700 troops in northeast Syria as part of a U.S.-led international coalition against IS militants.

Some experts say a further Turkish invasion of the region could distract efforts from the war on IS.

“Given that most of these armed groups that Turkey relies on for its military operations in Syria are extremists, the very mission of the U.S.-led international coalition against IS will be under threat,” said Nawaf Khalil, director of the Kurdish Center for Studies in Germany.

Strategic significance

Located on the strategic M4 highway that connects northeast Syria to the western part of the war-torn country, Ain Issa has great importance for Turkey as it tries to exert greater political and military pressure on Kurdish forces, experts say.

“Its fall to Turkey will mean other nearby towns such as Kobani and Manbij will be under direct threat from Turkey and its allied Islamist militias,” Khalil told VOA.

Analyst Erdemir echoed a similar view.

“Even if Ankara succeeds in forcing the SDF out of Ain Issa, its encroachment will continue with other settlements, continuing the incremental expansion of Turkish proxy rule in the region,” he said.

U.S. transition

Kurdish officials charge that Turkey’s objective during the current transition period in the U.S. is to accelerate its efforts to capture more territory in northern Syria while U.S. officials are largely focused on domestic politics.

“Ankara knows that the incoming U.S. administration will have a different policy towards our region, that’s why Turkish military and their Syrian militia partners will continue to pressure the Syrian Democratic Forces before [President-elect Joe] Biden takes office on January 20,” said Gelo Issa, a Kurdish official based in northern Syria.

“By the time new U.S. representatives are assigned to northeast Syria, Turkey will have created a new de facto situation on the ground,” he added.

Last week, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar visited Turkish troops deployed along the country’s border with Syria.

In a statement following the visit, the Turkish defense ministry said, “the fight against terrorists will continue until the last terrorist is neutralized.”

VOA’s Ezel Sahinkaya from Washington and Mahmoud Bali from Kobani, Syria, contributed to this story.